Helsinki Cathedral

10 things you should do in Helsinki

 

Helsinki is a vibrant city where both impressive architecture and beautiful nature coexist and, like many European cities, it is full of museums, cathedrals and innumerable tourist attractions. Details of these can be found in any guidebook and tourists from all across the globe are a common sight on Helsinki streets, although, they are not many in numbers.

However, being a clueless tourist or a seasoned traveler can impact your idea of a particular city and, I am sure, both the types wouldn’t have the same point of view.

A seasoned traveler knows how to focus on the things that interest him other than going on a sightseeing frenzy.  Because, let’s just admit, every place has too many things for you to cover in a single trip. No matter how hard you try, you will always miss out on something or the other. So the trick for exploring a city without exhausting yourself is to prioritise.

In my case, I like to skip museums and crowded tourist spots in any city. I would rather spend my time in aimless pursuit of things not written in those guide books. But you got to visit the most famous ones, of course.

In this post, I am skipping the regular touristy things to do in Helsinki here and focusing on the things the locals love doing.

Let’s find out my list of top ten things to do in Helsinki-

  1. Take a self-guided walking tour:

You are standing in front of the Central Railway Station and what you see is a century-old granite structure. The old clock at the tall tower above the building is still ticking, showing the right time. Behind the tower, you see a giant white dome. Unmistakably, it is the White Church, the most famous landmark in Helsinki. Underneath all of this, a modern metro runs without disturbing its nonchalant façade. But somehow the building transports you back to an old world.

Walk back and forth or whichever direction you want, you will end up admiring the old buildings and the roadside delis. Green and yellow trams crawl through the narrow roads with their electric wires hanging in perfect symmetry. Tucked inside this old world is Helsinki’s upmarket Designer  District.

The buildings speak of an era gone by, but different high-end brands adorn their interiors. Perhaps, this is the case with every European city, but to me, Helsinki looks different; a miniature version or just a makeshift  stage set for a European play. Every time I step out of my apartment, I fear that the play will be over soon and the stage will be dismantled. But find it the same way it had been the day before with the fountains, statues and the lamps in their places.  A new shop here and there emerges every day, but Finnish people just know how to sip their Starbucks coffee without tempering  the traditional setup.

Sibelius Monument

Sibelius Monument- one of the city landmarks

  1. Take a tram ride, especially a Pub Tram ride:

Ever heard of a Pub tram before? You might have. If not, try this specially designed pub on wheels right in Helsinki. It is an old tram reinvented by party-loving folks of Helsinki as a classy pub. The tram has a distinct red exterior and you can see it crawling around the city along most of  the main tram routes. Routes can also be customized according to special themes.  Hop in to enjoy a cosy session of wine and sightseeing. For more details check here.

If not the pub tram, just hop on to any tram and travel to the last stop when walking around is not your kind of fun thing to do. I bet, you will be surprised in many ways or just take the number  6 if you want to go on an art and culinary tour. The route covers some of the liveliest areas in the city.

For those who didn’t know, Helsinki takes pride in meticulously running one of the oldest tram systems in the world.  Here’s the route map for planning a detailed trip.

For a more time-travel kind of experience, you can choose to ride on a 105 years old open tram as well. But this vintage tram ride service is run during summers only. If you happen to be keen on trying it,  just head to Helsinki Market Square tram stop in between 10 am to 5 pm. The frequency is pretty good and the price is just 5 euro per person. Unfortunately, the public transport cards cannot be used in these exclusive train rides. Just a 15 minutes ride, but it’s definitely worth a try.

Find the details here.

Helsinki Tram

A tram crawling past an alley in downtown Helsinki

There is a tram museum too. Visit if time permits. Details here.

3.Go people watching at a cafe:

Observe how this quiet city walks, talks and goes on its daily chores by simply sitting over a cuppa in one of the many coffee shops. Speaking of the coffee shops, Finland is one of the biggest coffee consumers in the world. The funny thing is, Finland doesn’t even grow coffee and yet, Finnish people can’t do without their ‘once in a few hours’ caffeine fix. Coffee is not just a drink here, it’s an institution and a cultural thing.

You might have or haven’t heard of statutory coffee breaks in offices, but Finnish people have these rare privileges. Just like the Brits love their tea parties, Finnish women love their coffee parties (No, I haven’t been invited to one yet). The males mostly prefer to stick to their alcohol quota I suppose. yet, don’t be surprised to see good looking Finnish man quietly sitting at a roadside café and minding his own business.

And if smells and sounds could define memories, I am forever going to associate Helsinki with just one thing, coffee. Helsinki smells like coffee, doesn’t matter what time of the day or what season it is. Coffee is expensive here, but there aren’t any empty cafes in the city. The moment you step out to the streets, the aroma of coffee envelopes you. This is the best thing that can happen to you if like getting high on coffee.

Helsinki Cafe

A beautiful coffee shop in Helsinki

4. Go window shopping at Galleria Esplanad:

Disclaimer- I am not asking you not to shop here. Of course, you get the most fashionable products here. But this constellation of all the high-end brands can be way above your budget. If not, congratulations! You have just found your spot in the city. Otherwise, a lazy stroll along the chic street will just be the right thing to do.

The Esplanade Park right around the corner has many benches for you to sit back and enjoy the juxtaposition of fashion and architecture.  Walk to the end towards the dockyard and you will see another most famous landmark of Helsinki, the statue of Havis Amanda. Find out why this statue is so important here.

Also, if you are lucky or unlucky enough to visit this area on the ‘Ravintola Day’ the whole site will be different. Lucky, because, there will be innumerable food stalls in and around the park for you to gorge on all kinds of street foods. Unlucky, because, the usual upmarket feel of the area will be gone with all the casual vibes. Nevertheless, you got to visit this area to get either of these two experiences.

Vappu is another day when this place goes completely berserk. The good news, tucked inside this chick area is the Karl Fazar Café successfully running since 1891. This place is not just a regular coffee shop, but one of the must visit places in Helsinki. So the ambiance of this historical place is the amalgamation of local nonchalance and touristy restlessness. Because, when in Helsinki no well-informed tourist misses this one and the locals love it for the obvious reasons. Everything here is just perfect.

Be it a quick midweek cuppa or a leisurely snacking session on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Karl Fazer Cafe is the place to go to. I simply loved the Budapest roll which was a perfect balance of sweetness and nutty flavors. Just sink your teeth into its fluffy goodness and forget everything else. Of all the classy things in the area, this one will be definitely well within your budget.

Havis Amanda

The statue of Havis Amanda-another most famous landmark in Helsinki

5.Have a little picnic at a park:

Apparently, most of the Finns are very fitness conscious. I see them running and jogging all the time. Sometimes I try to follow their steps and end up sitting in a park with a pizza and hot cuppa. There is no dearth of parks, lakes and green patches in the city. Most of the days, I walk without worrying about directions and discover a new park or a quiet dockyard. Admiring the view, I sit down and stare.

Here, everything is so calm, even the Baltic sea! Occasionally, I see people fishing in the lakes, a bicycle with a basketful of flowers parked carelessly or small kids on their ice cream trips. All of this transports me back to my little town in the Eastern parts of India. How different yet similar in their unhurried existences! For the same reason, life in Helsinki has been a picnic. Pack a sandwich and sit anywhere you like. There will be a great view for sure.

Like they say, to know a city you don’t have to visit museums and monuments. The real life exists somewhere in a quiet park or a crowded restaurant. During winters, it will be difficult to sit in the park of course. But a little jog in the park can never hurt. My personal favourite spots are the Hietaniemi Beach and the little island where the Upsenski Cathedral is located.

The beach not a very long, a jolly sight in summers nonetheless. Else, I just go to the park near the Finlandia Hall. No, it’s not the vodka but a public auditorium.

Kaivo Puisto

Kaivo Puisto, a great spot to have a little picnic by the sea

6. Go pub-hopping at night:

I don’t know about too many European cities, but I had been scared of being mugged in Paris and even in Barcelona. But, Helsinki feels safe irrespective of time and place. Finnish people do not stare, forget passing racist comments or abusing foreigners. They are shy and mostly keep to themselves.

I have walked back from weekend parties at 3 AM in the morning, but I have never felt this safe in my entire life. This can be a very personal experience as I am not sure if things have happened to other people. Suburban areas could be problematic, though. But, Trust me, I would have never dared to walk alone at midnight in anywhere else. Only an Indian woman who is forever taught not to step out alone at night would understand how liberating this feels.

The only thing you will find intimidating here is the drunk groups hanging out in dark corners. But they are mostly harmless. So go pub hopping on a Saturday night, especially in summers and discover the carnivalesque atmosphere for yourself. On the downside, Alcohol is expensive in Finland, the music played there will be mostly in Finnish and they won’t let you in unless you produce a valid age proof. Amarillo is one such place to be.

Skip getting on the dance floor if you think you are old enough to be enjoying a quiet meal or you will raise a few eyebrows. In this case, just head to their restaurant bar.

Just don’t forget to check beforehand when does the last bus to your accommodation leaves. You don’t want to be stranded in a city that mostly looks deserted on weekdays.

Helsinki christmas street

Christmas time night out in Helsinki

  1. Taste Nordic delicacies:

Let’s just admit that people don’t visit this part of the world for gastronomical adventures. However, there are lots of interesting things to explore when it comes to their food. The key is to choose the right place and perhaps some good guidance. If you are sort of an adventure junkie, trying reindeer delicacies could be the thing you would like to do.

Reindeer husbandry is the traditional mode of living in Nordic countries and most of the restaurants in here serve reindeer meat. I haven’t tried it and never wish to do it as it feels terribly wrong for some unknown reasons to me. But mostly, I am not sure if the Santa Clause would approve such an act.

Hey, don’t feel bad already. It’s just a common food habit here and there are other dishes too. For example, try salmon with mashed potatoes. What gives a distinct flavour to Finnish food is the use of different herbs which grow in the wild. The best option would be to book a Finnish buffet in any Finnish restaurant and request someone to help you know which dish is what.

While on a whirlwind trip or a short stopover with no time to enjoy a Finnish meal just buy canned reindeer meat or bags of salty liquorice to enjoy it later. I personally love their fried pork dishes and salads. Here is a list of few Finnish restaurants in Helsinki. Or you can walk into a random Finnish restaurant.

Nordic food

Nordic food items being sold at a roadside stall

8. Enjoy a long day at a sauna:

Alone or with friends, any Finn would just love to spend long hours at the sauna. Finns love spending time at the sauna and then jumping straight into the ice cold water of a lake. Spending time at the sauna with friends and family is another Finnish institution. Your Finland experience would be incomplete without, at least, one visit to the sauna as nothing can be more Finnish than this.

The idea behind this institution is to bond with friends and family without worrying about the madness of the outside world.  Although it is quite debatable whether a sauna’s dry heat is beneficial to your body or not. I just hope it is beneficial for the obvious reasons. To me, Finland looks like a healthy nation.

So while in Helsinki, irrespective of the season, just don’t forget to enjoy some sauna session just like the Finns do. Most of the buildings have private saunas in the city. Hotels have it too. Otherwise, just go to a public sauna. There are many public saunas strewn around the old Merihaka district which happens to be a charming area for many old sculptures. These are well maintained public saunas where anyone can enjoy a calming bath for a few bucks. But don’t forget to learn the sauna etiquettes before you step into one.

Want to learn a few sauna rules you are expected to know and follow? Click here.

Moreover, if you are not used to this whole sauna idea, it could come as a surprise when you hear people doing meetings at the sauna with no clothes on. No matter how amusing it sounds, it is definitely one of the must-do things in Helsinki or any other place in Finland for that matter.

For a list of public saunas click here.

Helsinki sauna

A day out at the sauna- Photo courtesy:Visit Helsinki/Eetu Ahanen

9. Enjoy a musical evening:

Even if it is not a buzzing opera city unlike some of the famous European cities, Helsinki has its very own opera culture. No wonder, the city has many concert halls where one can get a taste of Finnish opera & orchestra. Finnish National Opera and Helsinki  Music Center are two must-visit places in the city where some breathtaking music happens.

The best thing about exploring the music scene here is that it is an ‘all round the year’ thing and you don’t have to visit Helsinki particularly in the summers to enjoy a great show. But if opera is not your thing, then go to any live music club and enjoy some really great rock and pop music. The circus is one place where international music icons often perform.

Else, Apollo Live club is another great place for live music. It used to be a movie theater in the past. Now, it is a sleek space that comes alive on weekends with live Scandinavian & Nordic music and stand-up comedy acts. But the largest indoor venue for such concerts is undoubtedly the Hartwall Arena, basically, an ice hockey stadium that seats more than 13 thousand people. Now, how grand is that? If not the music, the arena hosts many International Ice Hockey events and watching one of them is definitely a must if you happen to be in Helsinki when the city is hosting one.

Going a little off topic, I would also insert the name of Crystal Show Club which is worth a visit for that once in a lifetime strip club experience. I haven’t been inside, but I can imagine the heat quotient. Definitely an expensive business, though!

Xidanin aukio. Photo credit - Moi Helsinki

Xidanin aukio. Photo credit – Moi Helsinki

10. Enjoy winter sports, especially ice skating:

Helsinki receives less footfall during the winters as the temperature outside goes down to an average of minus 20 degree Celsius. Those lucky few who happen to visit the city during this time of the year get to experience an entirely different city. Helsinki in the winter months looks breathtakingly beautiful and the freezing cold doesn’t stop the Finns from having some outdoor fun.

Right in the heart of the city, near the central railway station, they have this artificial ice skating rink where both the locals and tourists can enjoy some ice skating sessions. If you are new to this, go prepared to fall a lot and this might hurt as well. But this is one of the things you shouldn’t miss doing.

If not skating, at least click a picture in you skating shoes and enjoy some hot chocolate sold at the makeshift shops near the rink. Find out more details here. For more adventure, try cross country skiing in Helsinki. For starters, a beautiful trail can be accessed right inside the Central Park. Digging some history of skiing, I found that the practice of modern ski had originated from this region and this explains the obsession for skiing in this part of the world. Or just walk into any snow-packed park and indulge in some sport. It is not just a recreational activity for the Finns but an effective mode of transport,; a way of life for those living in the wild.

I have heard that Finnish women are skiing pros and someone had once told me that they had defeated warring enemies many a time simply by fighting on ski blades. Quick and convenient! To top it all, don’t be surprised to find some of the Goddesses depicted in their mythology as skiing on snow-capped mountains.

Helsinki winter

Fun on a frozen bay

2 Comments

  • Akala Jamir June 6, 2016 at 3:52 pm

    Being an Indian I LOVE this line: Only an Indian woman who is forever taught not to step out alone at night would understand how liberating this feels.
    By the way i enjoyed reading and going through your pictures.

    Reply

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